CBS Radio owns many of the best radio stations and employs many of the best broadcasters in the country. Its top stations generate profit margins so large they almost don’t even seem real to business people when they learn about them. But yesterday, CBS announced to investors that it plans to get out of the radio business.
CBS? Out of the radio business? The business that started it all, as its logo brags, in 1928? Wouldn’t that be like Ford getting out of selling cars or Kellogg getting out of cereal?
Maybe it would, except ABC got out a decade ago, with Disney selling its radio division to a company called Citadel, which ended up in Bankruptcy. And NBC has been out of owning and operating radio stations since the late ’80s.
For CBS, like just about everything traditional media, radio has moved in recent years from “slow growth” to “no growth” to “declining revenue.” That means it has been treated as a failing business. There are many reasons for it across the board, including dramatically changing media consumption habits and a “moving target” approach by advertisers chasing elusive audiences, unsure of where to get the most for their dollars. But, among the reasons is a lack of investment in product and the inability to introduce the product to new audiences. Stations have seemingly been in cost cutting mode for almost 25 years.
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I posted this on Facebook last night: “Question for those younger than 40 who drive a car: What if there was a way for you to get updated on live news without a particular political focus – more than headlines but less than long-form reporting – get updated weather forecasts and traffic information and even sports information, all while you’re safely driving, rather than looking at your phone, piped through the speakers in your car. Cost to you? Nothing, as long as you’ll be exposed to some advertising. Would you be interested in such a thing? Why or why not?”
I got a few serious responses but the punchline here is that product exists in CBS’ largest markets in the all-news radio format, which has been a money maker and audience grabber for decades. But its audience is getting older and it makes me wonder if the younger audience was ever given a chance to find it and experience its usefulness and ease. Is there any chance there are more of them listening, just not being measured? Do they really want to carry around a pager-sized Portable People Meter? Those could be, quite literally, billion dollar questions.
All-news radio, when done well, can be the greatest form of media in the moments when you need it most. I think of last summer, driving from the Chicago suburbs to Detroit, trying to get in front of a storm that included a tornado. I could actually see the storm in my rear view mirror as I drove through Downtown Chicago in traffic, trying to get south then east as soon as I could. CBS’ WBBM kept me updated every step of the way, keeping me informed, calm and reassured between traffic updates, weather updates and “all hands on deck” coverage, with reporters, even those on days off, calling in from across the region. This all happened live, on a Sunday afternoon, while every other station in the market was playing music or syndicated programming. If CBS doesn’t do live news, who will? That’s a scary question. For some of us anyway.
Radio was my first communications love. The first paycheck I ever earned in communications was cut by CBS Radio. I remember an old timer telling me then, “As long as you stick with CBS, Westinghouse or Infinity, you’ll always have a job in radio news.” For the past 20 years, those have been one company. Soon, they won’t be a company at all. That, above all, illustrates the profound changes in media that just won’t stop.